Nov 13, 2016 By Norris Burkes
I first met Ernie Head in hospice care last summer. The 96-year-old was a proud WWII veteran who lived life by a personal motto: “No matter how you feel – Get Up – Dress Up – Show Up – Never Give Up.”
We began each of my home visits with a salute that often prompted war stories about his service in the 43rd Infantry Division. Unfortunately, the war left Ernie nearly deaf, so I often needed to yell into his right ear. Eventually we worked out a system using a dry-erase board for short questions or comments.
One day, he took me back when he asked, “Teach me to pray.”
“Just talk to God like you’re talking to me,” I wrote.
He then recounted the prayers he made to God during his war in the Pacific Theater of Operations. The stubbornness of the Japanese Imperial Force during the liberation of the Philippines required Allied soldiers to be ruthless in ways no one thought possible.
“I made some promises to God back then,” he said.
“I told God that if he’d get me out of this situation, I’d do anything. He got me out, but I’m not sure I lived up to my end of the bargain.”
At this point I could’ve reminded him that bargaining with God is a normal reaction to a mortal situation. But suffice to say, I don’t think God keeps contractual lawyers on his staff. God doesn’t run a gotcha-game, suing the “prayee” for breach of contract.
My personal experience with God is that he stays with me, even when I stray.
“Maybe you didn’t come home to serve on the deacon board,” I said, “but you served in other ways.” The plaques on his wall told me that.
He’d served in the VFW, Rotary, and Chamber of Commerce and was named Veteran of the Year for Yolo County, Calif. He’d been blessed with a loving wife who gave him four children and then blessed, again, with a second loving wife after his first one died.
He’d done a lot of good, and I have no doubt that he’d done some bad. Maybe it was the bad that filled his eyes with moisture.
“I want you to baptize me,” he said.
“Do you believe in God?” I wrote.
“Do you want to follow God with all the breath you have left?”
“The Bible promises us that if we call on God, he will save us.”
“Save me from what?” is the question folks often ask. I tell them that it largely depends on what’s troubling them.
In this case, Ernie sought salvation from his haunting memories.
“Can you do it now?” he asked.
“You don’t want to wait for friends and family?” I said.
“Now. I need it now.”
With his confirmation, I dipped my fingers into a small water bowl and moved them, dripping, over his forehead.
In the language that rang from the centuries, I said, “Upon your profession of faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.”
“Thank you,” he said, his words cascading into multiple thank-yous.
Ernie died a few weeks ago much like a lot of old soldiers die these days. They die with honor, they die with pride, and like most people, they die with a few regrets.
It was my honor to help Ernie lessen those regrets. To him and to all our WWII vets approaching their final battle, I offer you my most heartfelt salute and my profound thank you.
– Write Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715.